One of my favorite things about the English Premier League — indeed, in all of soccer — is the annual tradition of relegation. I think American sports would be better for it, if there’d be a way to make it work, but there’s too much money and prestige and luxury box stadium requirements and merchandising in the NFL, NBA, and even MLB to make it tenable.
Twenty teams compete in the EPL each year, and after a season in which each team plays home and away matches against the other 19 teams, the three worst teams are demoted to the perhaps-misnamed Championship League (not to be confused with the UEFA Champions League, which is different and better), where they must languish for at least the next season, competing with the other Championship League teams to be promoted to the EPL via rankings and playoffs.
The obvious advantage to this: it creates a merit system, in which teams must be at least marginally competitive to reap the benefits of being in the uppermost league – which, in the EPL’s case, includes a literally global audience. Granted, it’s the best and often richest teams who get the best players and boast the largest numbers of supporters, but being in the EPL gives fans of even the most talent-poor squads the chance to revel in taking down a Manchester United or Chelsea at some point in the season.
Let’s say you did this in the NBA. (Forget, for a moment, that each D-League team is a minor league team tied to an existing NBA team. Pretend that they’re independent entities.)
Certainly, Charlotte — which just finished with the worst winning percentage of any team in NBA history — would get dropped to the D-League, while the D-League Champion Austin Toros would be promoted into the NBA for the upcoming season. Imagine Charlotte’s disappointment, and Austin’s joy, and you get an idea of why relegation is so drama-rich and fun.
While relegation creates drama that wouldn’t otherwise exist for the EPL’s most moribund teams, it also creates an extra layer of gut punch for those teams that are relegated. In American sports, you hope your dismal team lucks into a team-changing draft pick (see: Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James), or that a newly-acquired coach brings new coaching magic that transforms can’t do into sorta can. But in relegation, you’re no longer rooting for one of the worst teams in your league; you’re rooting for a team now competing for the chance to once again be one of the worst teams in your league.
This coming weekend, the final one of the 2011-12 EPL season, we’ll not only find out which Manchester side wins the league, but also which team joins Blackburn Rovers and Wolverhampton in relegation. Those two teams have already clinched their spots to move down with particularly woeful seasons. It’s very likely that Bolton Wanderers will join them in relegation, which makes it a floods-plagues-and-locusts season for Bolton fans, seeing as one of the team’s most likable players, Fabrice Muamba, collapsed, had a heart attack, and nearly died on the field during a March 17 match.
For American fans of teams in danger of relegation, losing the EPL means losing much of the already-limited access to your team.
When I think of relegation this year, I think about my friend Robin who I met at a poetry slam years ago. She and I have both found favorite EPL teams to follow – for a mix of personal and unlikely reasons, she became a Blackburn fan. She also, it is worth noting, plays the bass guitar and is a huge Led Zeppelin fan.
Perhaps you can guess where this is headed.
In December, when things were beginning to look relegation-level bad, Robin headed out to Fado — downtown Austin’s hub of irrational soccer love – to watch Wolverhampton – a team struggling about as badly as hers. She was on an awesome, fateful collision course with another soccer fan that day — an older British gentleman still new to Austin, wearing a telltale orange-and-black Wolverhampton scarf, named Robert.
Yes, THAT Robert Plant, who is pretty much a superfan in that he became the club's third Vice President in 2009. And in that he is Robert Plant.
There’s a delightful picture of the two of them that she still has up on her Facebook page. Imagine a dazed and delighted fan standing next to one of her idols, but together and bonded and equal in this whole other context – fans anxiously hoping for their teams to escape the onus of relegation for at least another year, talking during the match, and commiserating over the states of their teams.
Robert was born into Wolves fandom, whereas Robin had some agency in her selection, but they’re both unwavering and loyal in allegiance to their teams. My experience is more like Robin’s. I came to adopt Arsenal as my EPL team through reasons as personal and unlikely as hers, and yet, I have it easier, in that Arsenal has enough money and tradition and talent to be among the league’s best year after year. Relegation is a staggering improbability for teams like Arsenal.
For an American fan, the EPL’s not as ever-present or as accessible as the NFL or the NBA or arguably even the NHL. To follow your team, you need to seek out special cable channels and soccer-friendly bars and websites originating from England that are funny and informative but would undoubtedly be more funny and informative to you if you actually lived in England.
In other words, it’s work for fans of teams with followings and more widely-recognizable players — a labor of love, but labor nonetheless. For American fans of teams in danger of relegation, losing the EPL means losing much of the already-limited access to your team. While not impossible in the Internet Age to find and follow your team, it’s a decidedly harder road to slough.
So, to Robin and Robert, I wish you well, and hope that your teams’ returns to the EPL aren’t as over the hills and far away as some might fear.